Nothing announces a piece of minimalist domestic realism quite like the expression “my wife and I.” The first story of Glen Pourciau’s Carveresque debut collection, Invite—winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award—begins: “The trouble started when my wife and I were planning a trip. . . .” The second story begins: “My wife and I never recovered from the loss of our son.” The fifth story: “My wife and I had been around and around about it.” And a Pourciau story in this summer’s Paris Review opens: “It was Saturday afternoon, and my wife and I decided to go to the mall. . . .”
The stories in Invite that don’t mention “my wife” in the first sentence are even more preoccupied with wives: “How Tommy Lee Turned Out Abnormal” is told from a wife’s perspective, and “The Neighbor” concerns another man’s ex-wife, who—here it comes—bears an unsettling resemblance to the narrator’s wife. Yet, these wives receive scant characterization, beyond the knee-jerk protection of their husbands’ fragile egos. The classic short story of the “my wife” genre—Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”—is practically a portrait of a wife. It’s dense with candid spousal observation, and the woman breathes on the page.
Nevertheless, the tragicomic possibilities of married life are often used to Pourciau’s advantage. In “Snub,” the narrator and his wife pretend not to notice an intolerable couple they know at an outdoor restaurant and suffer weeks of guilt-ridden post-analysis as a result. “Water” conjures a Larry David–like domestic drama, in which the narrator and his wife debate their neighbors’ excessive sprinkler use. But privately, cautiously: “Who were we to tell them to cut down on their watering?” Before they know it, wincing at a mud-soaked lawn has led to a major philosophical dilemma: Should we say what we think, or keep it to ourselves?
And yet both the form and content of Invite remain half-imprisoned by Carver’s influence. All the shopworn hallmarks are here: the drinking and cigarette smoking as a sign of inner turmoil; the clipped names (Don, Lou, Cam, Liv) meant to symbolize a working-class existence; the recidivist troublemakers who are, unironically, “at it again.” Pourciau seems tempted by irony and postmodern mischief, but in the end, he’s unwilling to let go of Carver’s staid earnestness. As such, the tone of his stories feels undecided, stuck in the same predicament as his characters. We’re left waiting to hear what he thinks.